Bobby Keys Band Burns It Up @ Nashville’s Mercy Lounge May 2, 2011
The Bobby Keys Band
Mercy Lounge, Nashville, TN
2 May 2011
There are few musicians synonymous with an oeuvre or a sound, yet Bobby Keys pretty much defines rock & roll saxophone, especially of the Rolling Stones varietal. Sweaty, moist, intense, raw, in your face yet melodic, his riffs have been as much a part of AOR radio as Mick’s yowl or Keith’s downstroke.
With little fanfare, the 68-year old player has quietly put together a band to celebrate a core sample of rock history that is largely the Stones with a side order of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, John Lennon, George Harrison, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Dion & the Belmonts and “Harlem Nocturn.” Long on story-telling, longer on playing, the 6-piece band is equal parts precision and jubilation.
Hitting the Mercy Lounge stage for a third Monday night jam, Keys explained that “This song was recorded on December 18, 1971… Keith Richards birthday and also, my birthday – and we played it at our birthday party,” then launched into a blazing “Brown Sugar.” Leg flying and flapping, former Georgia Satellite Dan Baird grinned like a Cheshire cat and leaned hard into the Stones’ sweltering raver about unfiltered lust and sexual fulfillment.
As terse and banging as the band, though, there is that moment when Keys – equally beaming – puts the sax to his lips, leans back and blows. It is that solo, that furnace blast of want and sacred delivery that was the essence of “Brown Sugar,” as much as the riff, as much as Jagger’s furtive howl – and it swells to fill every inch of the room.
A jovial character – equal parts Ferris Bueller and rock icon – he tells stories about rolling with Keith Richards, getting kicked out of school for picking up King Curtis from the airport for a Buddy Holly session and hearing himself on the radio “on a hit record” for the first time, then plays those solos with all the ferocity that imprinted them on our DNA in the first place.
Whether it’s a starker, slightly sinister take on “The Letter,” with a lot of backbeat that’s all slam, bang and darkness – setting the stage for Keys’ solo to read like multiple stabds into the heavy carcass of the song, or a sultry excavation that serves as an homage to Curtis on “Soul Serenade,” moving from an almost romantic exploration of the melody into something far more undulating and outright erotic in its thrust, this is about what those sax parts mean to the fabric of rock & roll and sexual awakening.
Tribal in a way that is not just rhythmic undertow, it is a gathering of players from the gut, surrendering to the momentum of the songs – yet somehow never quite losing their focus on the playing, the intertwining of parts and the reality of how hot they can make it.
On “Live With Me,” the first song Keys ever recorded with the Stones, Michael Webb’s piano takes on a marching sort of staccato meter, propelling the song forward with columns of guitar chords falling in line with a fierce precision that delivers a rapture that is palpable.
Talking like a dime store prophet or a tent show preacher, the stories are pure carny, yet somehow the playing – an untethered bit of bump’n’shuffle – takes all the honky tonk and smelts it into something a bit more bracing, a deeper kind of spasm that verges on primal charges. “Delta Lady” – set up with the wink’n’nod confession that Joe Cocker sang it, but Leon Russell wrote it about Rita Coolidge cause “he had a little kissy face going on with her” – is a screwtop kinda boogie with a barnstorming piano sliding in and out of the greasy pocket. Thumping and bumping like uglies in a back seat on a gravel road too late to get anywhere else, it satisfies with that same kind of molten lust.
Yet it’s not all coital wind-up. The Southern boys channeling British rockers who fell in love with all kinds of American blues, there’s a genuine genuflection at the altar of rural roots: as the accordion weazes out the beginning of the country-tinged “Sweet Virginia,” Chark Kinsolving’s slide is pure salvation – threading the acoustic guitar chords with a sanctity that juxtaposes the song’s true meaning.
That may be the greatest feat of rock & roll celebration. Beyond the sweat, the sex and the sound, there is a deliverance conjured every time a great band sets it up. To see Dan Baird, long one of rock’s truest believers and grittiest textures, exultant with such complete abandon – hurling himself at the beats, singing harder than his tenure in the Satelites, the Fabulous Yay-hoos or even his own solo stuff required and finding the center of every single song – is to realize how much joy this repertoire holds.
Indeed, how much virility! With Dion’s “The Wanderer,” a definitive AM radio hit if ever there was one, it isn’t just a pleasant revisit replete with dead-on sax part. No, it becomes a low down grind, with a little swagger and far more danger than the original mustered, the muskiness of a grown man warning off the sweet little thing who can’t get enough. Not quite cautionary tale as much as cautionary come-on, whatever you get is more than plenty.
Rolling towards the end of the 70 minutes, it was a one, two punch of the heavy syncopation raver “Bitch” and the half singing/half-playing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” that was riffage embodied. As much as the bold guitar parts and lyrics were cornerstones of the Stones music, it was the theoretically lesser elements that gave the songs their charge. Certainly Keys’ solos, but also the way Charlie Watts – and on this stage Black Crowes’ dummer Steve Gorman was holding down the crashing beats – marshaled, and even drove the songs with rhythms that were formidable, yet somehow so engaging, the crowd was swept up without thinking.
Without thinking is everything. Surrender and let it happen. When the blasts of guitar chords were lashing, it was a brutal treat. When Baird was singing with every bit of internal combustion, it was a witness to the things that made him. When the rhythm section chunked and thumped in true manic presence, one could only lift up their feet and dance.
Each unto their own, and then there was a convergance. The coming together of all that talent to expand the songs, take them places and then bring them back. At times verging on Allman Brothers-esque explorations, the jams were never indulgent, but always to see what the music could hold – and the audience went along with rapt attention.
Still, it was all in service of Bobby Keys. To create tableaus where those sax parts can blast with abandon, to offer up the staging for some of the most famous parts ever played, to be brazen — as they were — is a gift unto itself.
Anywhere this ragtag group of committed players descends, get there. A no-holds barried kind of proposition, it rocks. Not in a reckless sense, mind you, but in the combustion that is the kineticism of the gravitational pull of great players orbiting each other with a reason and an anchor. Seamless, seering, sweaty and ready, the glory of basic rock & roll transcends all – and honestly, is as urgent now as it ever was. At least in the hands, lips and lungs of Bobby Keys.